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Why Web Analysts Need To Be Ready For Change

Barry Adams

by Barry Adams on 13th June 2012

Time for changeToday we welcome Barry Adams of Polemic Digital to the Koozai blog who explains why he believes web analytics is facing a tough road ahead.

It’s hard to escape the notion that web analytics will be facing some tough challenges in years to come.

There are a number of online trends around privacy coming to a head, and these are likely to have a strong impact on web analytics. The methods with which we track visits to our websites, and the measurements we use to judge online success will have to evolve to keep pace with this changing landscape.

First of all, there’s the EU Cookie Directive which requires all websites to ask for consent from users before tracking cookies can be placed. Fortunately in the UK, as well as in many other countries, ‘implied consent’ is deemed acceptable in most cases, which means our web analytics tracking is currently not at risk.

However, the EU Cookie Directive does serve to inform users about tracking cookies, and may lead to more users utilising their browser features that allow them to opt out of cookies – which introduces a greater element of uncertainty in our web analytics reports.

Additionally, Microsoft has announced that it will enable the ‘Do Not Track’ function by default in its latest browser, IE10. There is yet much uncertainty about how this will affect web analytics tracking cookies; whether or not Google Analytics and other web analytics software will comply with Do Not Track, or whether they will ignore it and place tracking cookies regardless.

With online privacy taking centre stage in many debates about the future of the internet, chances are that web analytics as we know it will come up against tough times. This means that, whatever emerges from these debates, web analysts needs to be ready for change.

Worst case scenario, we will eventually see a level of inaccuracy in our web analytics figures in excess of 50% as browsers enable Do Not Track by default and web analytics cookies comply. Now I don’t think this is likely to happen, but nonetheless it seems prudent to prepare for such a scenario.

So what can we do to prepare?

Below are a few steps you can take today to decrease your reliance on existing web analytics methods, and prepare for future analytics challenges.

(Re-)Define Online Success Metrics

First and foremost, we need to sit together with our clients and re-evaluate exactly what online success looks like. What metrics will we use going forward, and how can we most accurately measure these?

For ecommerce sites, I expect a growing reliance on sales reports as generated by the ecommerce platform itself (Magento, OpenCommerce, etc), as well as the sales reports the client maintains.

For sites that rely on softer conversions – submitted forms, phone calls – the agency needs to be kept in the loop on the clients own internal reporting. I also expect growth in systems that offer website-integrated phone call tracking.

Effectively, this results in an agency needing to inject itself in to the client’s business intelligence flows. As web analytics on their own become an unreliable measure of online success, the classic internal success metrics that businesses use need to be employed in the online realm and merged with the lessons that web analytics can continue to teach us.

Web analytics will never become entirely obsolete, as even with a high level of error there are important reports that web analytics alone can generate, especially around conversion funnels and click flows. However, these reports will need to be merged with business intelligence reports from other sources in order to deliver the kind of metrics that clients can rely on and extract actionable insights from.

This matches nicely with the growing convergence of online and classic marketing activities, and agencies repositioning themselves as marketing consultancies with online specialities (instead of pure providers of online tactics such as SEO and PPC).

Alternative Analytics

Additionally, it is probably a good idea to look at alternative cookie-less means of registering website activity. That most ancient of web analytical methods, logfile analysis, may be making a comeback.

Webserver logfile analysis is nowhere near as advanced as cookie-based web analytics (in fact I hesitate to call it logfile ‘analysis’ at all, preferring to refer to it as ‘statistics’) however it doesn’t rely on cookies and it’s pretty much impossible for users to opt out of.

This makes it an ideal supplement to web analytics when it comes to reporting raw numbers, though it is likely to be much less useful for the more advanced analysis that we’re used to with web analytics that we are familiar with today.

There are also some encouraging projects underway to develop cookie-less web analytics utilising server-side tracking. Whilst still in its infancy, such server-side tracking methodologies could overtime develop in to fully featured alternatives to cookie-based web analytics.

It’s worthwhile keeping an eye on this fledgling field of web analytics to see what emerges in the future.

Future-proof Your Web Analytics

There is no better moment to start future-proofing your web analytics. There is currently a lot of uncertainty concerning this area, and as a result clients need to be aware that you are on top of things and are prepared to maintain the highest level of service, regardless of what the internet throws at us.

So talk to your clients, investigate alternative solutions, and keep a close eye on developments. Web analytics is under some indirect fire from various sources, so it’s time to build that bomb-proof measurement bunker that will serve you and your clients well for years to come.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author so may not represent those of the Koozai team.

Image Source

Time For Change via BigStock

Barry Adams

Barry Adams

Barry Adams is the Founder of Polemic Digital in Belfast where he provides SEO and online marketing services for a wide range of clients across Ireland and the UK. Starting out his career as an Intranet Content Manager, Barry has worked in a variety of positions including Corporate Webmaster, Web Consultant for SMEs, and in-house SEO Specialist for a large regional newspaper. Barry is a regular contributor to State of Digital and Search News Central, and has an irregular technology column in the Belfast Telegraph. He also teaches SEO and PPC for the Digital Marketing Institute.


  • Marjory 13th June 2012

    Great post Barry. And acceptance of cookies aren’t the only problem as use of multiple devices in the sales cycle is also kiddying the data. We definitely need a new way to track success.

    Reply to this comment

    • Barry Adams 13th June 2012

      Fully agree Marjory, there are many more threats to accurate web analytics than the ones I mentioned there. With privacy an increasing concern and cross-device usage ever growing, and technology evolving as rapidly as it does nowadays, we probably haven’t yet glimpsed the thing that will have the biggest impact on web analytics in the future.

      Reply to this comment

  • dan barker 13th June 2012

    Here are a few thoughts on this which may/may not be useful:

    1. The Cookie Directive

    The cookie directive has had no real effect on web analytics for most businesses so far. I am very happy about this & I hope it continues!

    2. Do Not Track

    The ‘do not track’ draft now says that browser makers can’t turn it on by default. Hopefully that will be honoured by browser makers & we’ll all be very happy. Either way, I would be very surprised if Google bowed to it anyway. Fingers crossed!

    3. Inaccuracy

    Web Analytics has always been & will always be inaccurate. The exciting bit is that it’s far more ‘accurate’ than any method we had previously to measure ‘customer’ behaviour. The other exciting bit is: inaccuracy does not matter all that much. Understanding where the inaccuracy lies, what causes it, & what the caveats are in data is far more important.


    Reply to this comment

    • Barry Adams 13th June 2012

      Hi Dan, I agree that 1 and 2 have not yet had any major impact on web analytics – goes to show that in the few days between writing a blog post and it getting published, current affairs can make entire swaths of it obsolete – but these things do point at a growing trend in favour of privacy, and I fear that trend will be – among many other side-effects – to the detriment of web analytics.

      Regarding accuracy, of course web analytics have never been 100% accurate. But I do have to prepare for year on year reports in 2013 to show a marked decline in website activity, even when the exact opposite is actually happening, because web analytics tracking might not happen on most visits…

      Reply to this comment

  • Yasir 13th June 2012

    Great post Barry and on a very important topic !

    After using GA, Omniture, Comscore, WebTrends etc I can safely say that things will deteriorate further for Web Analysts, unfortunately.

    Apart from cookies, we have personalization, encryptions (Google and FF on verge of it). I see bleak future ahead !

    The other fatal thing that this will do is the tracking of user journey. You won’t be able to track from where the user came and went after visiting your site.

    You are right in saying that we might to revert back to old dreaded log files to extract something useful.


    Reply to this comment

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